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‘Does not mean abolishing’: UCSD professors break down the phrase ‘Defund the police’

Protesters outside San Diego City Hall on June 8 asked that some police funding be diverted to a rental assistance program.
Protesters outside San Diego City Hall on June 8 asked that some Police Department funding be diverted to a rental assistance program.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Like “social distancing” became a phrase ingrained in our language because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “defund the police” has become a watchword for the Black Lives Matter movement that is now part of our political lexicon.

But what does the phrase actually mean? Perhaps more importantly, what does it not mean?

The Light reached out to experts at UC San Diego for an explanation and was given a statement by three philosophy professors: Samuel Rickless, Dana Nelkin and David Brink.

Looking to clarify the word “defund,” the statement reads: “Importantly, defunding the police does not mean abolishing the police (although “defund the police” is often confused with “abolish the police”).

“Abolishing the police is a more radical proposal that involves dismantling the police department and replacing it with a public safety department with different employees, priorities, training and tactics.

“Defunding the police means keeping the police department and reforming it through greater oversight and the implementation of more stringent rules governing the use of force. Defunding the police will surely require reduction in the size of police departments, but not the complete elimination of the departments.”

The “defund the police” movement represents the goal of redirecting funds in municipal budgets toward social programs aimed at preventing crime, according to the statement.

Further, the statement says there are several claims behind the movement:

  • “Poor communities, especially communities of color, are over-policed in the sense that police are more likely to be found there, to harass the people who live there (through their discretion in the application of the reasonable-suspicion standard, and the explicit or implicit racism involved in the application of such discretion), to stop them for minor misdemeanors (drug possession, busted taillight, loitering), arrest them even when they have discretion to issue citations, and use sometimes lethal violence if and when they resist arrest.
  • “In addition, there is selective enforcement of various criminal laws, especially drug laws, against persons of color, increased expenditure on military weaponry without comparable training about its legitimate use, refusal to treat lethal use of force as permissible only when necessary, and de facto prosecutorial immunity of the police from accountability.
  • “Money that is currently spent on such ‘broken windows’ policing would be better spent improving the lives of the people who live in currently over-policed communities through after-school programs, jobs programs, housing programs, education programs, day care programs, health programs, transportation programs, environmental programs, public art programs and so on, on the theory that when people’s lives improve and they have something to live for, there is less temptation to turn to crime. There is evidence that police budgets have increased in the last 50 years while the funds spent on social programs in heavily policed communities have been reduced.”

The San Diego City Council voted in early June to approve a $27 million increase to the San Diego Police Department budget despite hours of testimony asking the council to defund it.

Council member and La Jolla resident Barbara Bry voted in favor of the budget with the increased police funding, along with all of her council colleagues except member Chris Ward.

In a statement after the 8-1 vote, Bry said: “We did not defund the San Diego Police Department because, to help restore trust in our Police Department, we need to focus more on neighborhood policing, which means recruiting more officers committed to this approach, providing them with better training and support and strengthening community oversight. That is why I continue to support the ballot measure for a community-led independent police review board with subpoena power.”

The City Council was set to establish a commission on police practices at its June 23 meeting, beyond the La Jolla Light deadline. ◆